Clear the air: Reveal retirees’ benefits

Published 4:35 pm Saturday, October 28, 2017


Guest columnist

When addressing generous benefits received by Kentucky Teachers’ Retirement System (TRS) retirees in this column, a voluminous email response — mostly critical — is the norm.

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“I seriously have issues with using the word ‘lavish’ for teachers’ pensions,” a science teacher in Jefferson County wrote. “The word produces images of wealthy retirees sitting out on their yachts or on a sunny beach somewhere enjoying their retirement.”

She went on to remind me about many predicaments Kentucky teachers face: long hours, rising health-care costs and “crippling student loans.”

She failed to note, of course, that such conditions aren’t unique to her profession.

Workers in most, if not all, occupations face similar concerns year-round and not just the 185 days Kentucky teachers are mandated by law to work annually, although many work far more than the minimum.

An unnecessary obstacle in determining whether benefits are adequate for retirees and affordable for taxpayers is a lack of transparency regarding individuals and their public-pension benefits.

While each school district publishes teachers’ salary schedules so we can know, for example, that during the 2016-17 school year, a Hardin County teacher with a Rank I certificate and 29 years’ experience earned $69,616, while her counterparts in McCracken and Oldham counties made $62,635 and $69,998 respectively, we don’t know much about benefits.

We know that a teacher with 25 years’ experience earned at least $82,502 in Jefferson County but a maximum of $64,151 in Clark County.

We also know that Pulaski County Superintendent Steve Butcher’s compensation during the 2016-17 school year was $153,000, while his Whitley County counterpart Scott Paul was paid $129,424.52.

The level of detail offered by the Kentucky Department of Education regarding superintendents’ compensation packages is extensive and broken down into several categories.

Butcher, for instance, received a base salary of $57,311, extended day salary of $17,038.41 and extra service day salary of $78,650.59.

However, the day Butcher, Paul, all superintendents, teachers and retirees in the TRS or KRS retire, the curtains are closed and information regarding their pension benefits is — unlike their salaries while working — hidden from the public.

We know, for example, that TRS beneficiaries and retirees not yet eligible for Medicare have received their medical insurance at little personal cost.

But retirees, especially those who taught, always protest when we delve into this debate by claiming their benefits are overstated.

Meanwhile, superintendents and teachers across the commonwealth are claiming that even mild reforms proposed by the Bevin administration would drive experienced teachers from the profession while discouraging bright young Kentuckians from being attracted to a career in the classroom.

Yet these same people usually vehemently oppose allowing we, the taxpayers, access to the scope and cost of their benefits.

Wouldn’t making the system transparent so the public can see the supposed stinginess of those retirement benefits help clear the air and allow them to better make their case if it’s the right one?

Wouldn’t making this data available also resolve assertions by some that stated average benefit levels are artificially low because they combine benefits received by those who worked in the system only a few years with those who were career employees and earned higher benefits?

Reform-minded legislators could help make their case for knotty votes needed to cut costs and save Kentucky’s pension systems by doing what they did with their own retirement information during the first week of this year’s General Assembly: make all retirees’ benefits in all systems subject to Kentucky’s Open Records Act, complete with names, agencies and amounts.

Such openness won’t necessarily tell us who’s napping in their yacht or drinking on the beach. But it will go a long way toward giving legislators cover for the tough choices ahead.

Jim Waters is president and CEO of the Bluegrass Institute for Public Policy Solutions, Kentucky’s free-market think tank. He can be reached at and @bipps on Twitter.